In 2002, the Coca-Cola Company quietly killed off a drink it had been calling “Coke II.” You may know it by its more infamous name: New Coke. And if you’re a youngin’, you’re going to know it thanks to Hawkins, Indiana resident Lucas (played by Caleb McLaughlin), who expresses his love for New Coke in the new season of Netflix’s Stranger Things.
But what’s up with Coke, New Coke, and the supposed conspiracy theory that followed in its wake? While whole books have been written on the subject, here’s a brief historical explainer so you can get back to binge-watching Stranger Things Season 3.
1985: Project Kansas
Despite Coca-Cola’s overwhelming presence in the psyche of Americana, the company had lost market share to competitor Pepsi by 1983. That year, Coca-Cola had just 24% of the soda market and survived through existing “pouring rights” in vending machines, fast food restaurants, and sports stadiums. Baby boomers, who were aging into their thirties, were starting to buy diet drinks while kids guzzled Pepsi.
In the early ‘80s, after Roberto Goizueta became Coca-Cola CEO and told employees there are no “sacred cows” to business, a secret group was assembled by marketing VP Sergio Zyman and Coca-Cola USA president Brian Dyson. They were tasked to create a new flavor. The project was dubbed “Project Kansas” after William Allen White, a journalist in Kansas photographed sipping Coca-Cola in Life magazine in 1938.
This “sweeter” Coca-Cola formula proved formidable in taste tests. Drinkers preferred it over Pepsi and even regular Coke, though 10%-12% said they wouldn’t drink Coke again if this were the new flavor. This aberration would inexplicably become more severe when the drink officially launched to the public on April 23, 1985 — the same year Stranger Things Season 3 takes place.
“Another Surrender to the Yankees”
The initial launch of New Coke was pretty successful. Sales went up for Coke 8% over the same period as the year prior. However, it was in the Southeast, where Coca-Cola is embedded in the cultural identity, where trouble brewed.
In the 1987 book The Real Coke, The Real Story by Thomas Oliver, American Southerners did not welcome New Coke and saw it as another surrender to the “Yankees.” Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta received 40,000 calls and letters expressing anger and disappointment. At one point, Coke reportedly hired a psychiatrist to listen in on calls, and the psychiatrist said that these agitated consumers spoke of New Coke in the same tone as a death in the family.
The weirdness doesn’t end there. Besides a scathing review by Chicago Tribune’s Bob Greene and roasts by David Letterman, none other than (according to the 2013 book For God, Country, and Coca-Cola by Mark Pendergrast), Fidel Castro piled on New Coke, calling it “a sign of American capitalist decadence.”
Return to “Coca-Cola Classic” and the Conspiracy
The entire story of New Coke is a bewildering one. It has everything: consumer and brand identity, competition in capitalism, and a snapshot of a time gone by in pop culture history. Aside from the aforementioned books, further reading from 2016’s Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism by Bartow J. Elmore and 2015’s Secret Formula: The Inside Story of How Coca-Cola Became the Best-Known Brand in the World by Frederick Allen is encouraged.
But to sum up the demise of New Coke, Coca-Cola readopted its “old” formula, rebranded as “Coca-Cola Classic” (colloquially called “Old Coke”) on July 11, just 79 days after the launch of New Coke. The controversial drink still sold until July 2002 (renamed “Coke II” in 1990) in scattered markets across the northwest, midwest, and overseas.
For Stranger Things Season 3, Coca-Cola relaunched “New Coke” to capitalize on the tie-in promotion. Because I never drank New Coke in the ten years I was alive for it, I was eager to try it out. I found a rather smoother taste in New Coke than the more sharper taste of normal Coke.
There is a popular “conspiracy” that Coca-Cola engineered New Coke to boost lagging sales of its original Coca-Cola. Well, there’s some truth to that: Of course New Coke was made to boost sales. Of course New Coke was made by the Coca-Cola Company to sell more soda.
What the Coca-Cola Company will dispute is the twist that New Coke boosted loyalty into the original Coke formula. In the BBC documentary The People vs. Coke in 2002, Coca-Cola president and chief operating officer Donald Keough remarked on the scheme: “We’re not that dumb, and we’re not that smart.”
“There is a twist to this story which will please every humanist and will probably keep Harvard professors puzzled for years,” said Keough at a press conference for Coca-Cola Classic. “The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.”
Stranger Things Season 3 premieres July 4 on Netflix.